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Starship Troopers (1997)

Paul Verhoeven

USA

129 min, color, English

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

I had been a fan of Heinlein's Starship Troopers for many years before Verhoeven made the film, and so I was understandably excited when it came out. I saw it half a dozen times in the movie theater (and loved every minute of it), and when it came out on DVD several years ago, I immediately bought it and promptly watched it several more times (and loved every minute of it). I recently re-read Heinlein's novel and, having decided the timing was both appropriate and opportune, I watched the film again. I am hereby stating for the record that I still love the film and thoroughly enjoy the book even though I do not agree with either!

Let's start with the film as an adaptation of Heinlein's novel. This is going to be short: it is nothing of the sort. In fact, although Verhoeven makes use of the basic events in the book, his entire argument is entirely contrary to what Heinlein wrote about. This is not a criticism of the director or a wish for the mythical "true" adaptation (although with Jackson's The Lord of the Rings we may have found that particular Holy Grail). It is just a statement about substance: Heinlein glorifies the military, Verhoeven abhors it. Heinlein believes military life a proud and socially useful occupation, Verhoeven believes it's repugnant and socially destructive. Heinlein argues that Federal Service produces responsible citizens, Verhoeven argues that it produces fascists.

Verhoeven hates the idea that violence solves anything. He is a good modern European (well, he's not British after all) in adhering to that nonsense. Now, naked force is stupid, but applying force for political ends can be productive. Pacifists, of which Verhoeven definitely is one, argue endlessly against war, but they neglect that the current Pax Americana has been bought at a hefty price with war. Or we'd be living in a Pax Germanica (and would all be Aryans) or a Pax Sovietica (and would all be glorious Leninists). We may yet go to some Chinese world Pax, but it won't happen without another cataclysmic struggle. The simple truth is that our liberties today have been bought with blood, and we must defend them with blood too when necessary. Peace never solves anything, it is just an excuse to let problems fester in the hopes that they go away.

So, Verhoeven (and writer Neumeier) took Heinlein's novel and turned its argument that (military) service inculcates a sense of duty on its head. In this version, service is equivalent to brainwashing, and propaganda turns otherwise normal kids into proto-fascists. That is, war makes everyone a fascist because it creates the need for centralization and authoritarian rule. There is some truth to that, which is why war should never be attempted lightly.

The other giant departure from the novel concerns the aliens. In the book, the Arachnids are unseen. They are capable of space flight, highly intelligent, but thoroughly incomprehensible to humans. In the film they are repugnant insects. Still, Verhoeven is careful to show that they did not provoke the war. It was humans (amusingly, renegade Mormon settlers) who invaded their territory first and who got licked for that. In this view, the Arachnid destruction of Buenos Aires is a justified act of retaliation, an opportunity for the militarists to swing into full gear and plunge the Terran Federation into war. Verhoeven certainly seems to believe, along with the reporter that gets sliced in two, that if we could only communicate and understand each other, there would be no war. This is very similar to Joe Haldeman's story in Forever War, which might have served as a better basis for what Verhoeven wanted to say, and is just as naive.

Another enormous change is the race of the main character. Heinlein tells us Johnny Rico is Filipino, but Verhoeven makes him the all-American boy. This may be a minor matter to some, but given that the book was written in 1959, it seems odd that it would be more progressive than a 1997 film. To top it off, Verhoeven constantly claims to be a good feminist and racially-blind film-maker. (Maybe it is for that particular purpose that the white male Sky Marshal's replacement is a non-white female?) But the truth is probably in the marketing: Johnny is white, Carmen is white, Dizzy is white, Ace is white, Zim is white, Rasczak is white, and most everyone else is white. There's the token non-white (but not quite dark) here and there, but the film is remarkably racially homogeneous. The book, with is proliferation of distinctly non-white names, makes it clear that Heinlein envisioned a far more heterogeneous society.

The film as film. Superb, no question about it. It is expertly paced, with not a single boring moment in it. From the "news/propaganda reels" that mimic the equivalent reels from the Second World War, to the spaceships, and to the ground fighting, the film gets a firm grip of the viewer and never lets go. The fighting sequences are brutal but not repulsive, and somehow made to appear quite realistic (again perhaps because Verhoeven examined a lot of wartime footage). The grand musical score by Poledouris is captivating. As a pure piece of entertainment, the film is a definite must-see.

Verhoeven also sneaked in several of his favorite themes that are not part of the novel at all. Actually, it's one big theme: the role of women in modern society. Heinlein, although not a feminist, usually portrayed his female protagonists as brave, strong, and more resourceful than men. But ST is a male book despite the passing nod to females dominating the Navy. Since it's all about the infantry (and there one does not see any women), the story is strictly stag.

Verhoeven breaks with that. First, he makes Carmen Johnny's love. (In the book they may or may not have been lovers in school but they never see each other after that.) She's the best (and, befittingly, quite cocky) young pilot in the fleet. She's career-minded and ready to sacrifice her romantic relationship with Rico. She's quite capable of affection, and is faithful in her own way. She is also utterly modern in dispensing with all that "love till death" fiction that may (or may not) be possible only within certain relationships but generally seems impossible. In short, she is the modern woman.

Second, Verhoeven makes Dizzy a girl (this was a marginal male character that gets introduced and then killed) who is in love with Johnny. When Johnny volunteers (to impress Carmen, in which he succeeds because she immediately rewards him by sleeping with him), Dizzy does too (to be near Johnny). Slowly but surely she manages to attract him in a "more than friends" way. She is utterly loveable, perhaps more so than Carmen, whose career-dominated life may make her appear too cold and insensitive. Dizzy is a bit of a throwback to our own schizophrenic existence: she is one tough woman, an excellent soldier who clearly believes in the privilege of citizenship, who pursues her goals with single-minded determination. Yet, for the most her goal seems to be Johnny, and when she dies, she dies happily because she "had him." And that makes her a very traditional woman who mostly defines herself through her man. She is a contradiction that cannot survive. And she does not.

I have heard people saying that Verhoeven killed the wrong woman at the end. Many seem to hate Carmen both because of her having "Dear Johnnied" Rico and for her being attracted to Zander. Huh? Is this really unbelievable? Let's put this in perspective. She was faithful to Rico while she was with him. She clearly broke up with him because of wanting to go career. Although she was attracted to Zander from the start, she did not do anything about it until after breaking up with Rico. She had clearly retained strong feelings for Johnny and (conjecture on my part), perhaps they will be seeing each other again. As I said, she is the type of woman Verhoeven clearly likes better and who must inherit the earth. Dizzy is an anachronism who must fall by the wayside, wither, and perish.

I have to say that all of the above makes the film better than the book in terms of plot. Heinlein is a bit wasteful of characters: some of them come and go without leaving a trace. But the film does present a message that is a negation of everything Heinlein stood for. Still, I like both the book and the film even though I agree with neither. So where does this leave us? Heinlein has problems with his society, as I mentioned in the review of the book. Verhoeven has problems with his pacifism. So the book and the movie should probably be entertained for different reasons.

The DVD I have is very nice although it's the old edition. There are plenty of extras that may be worth seeing once. The director's commentary is atrocious. I barely lasted 15 minutes before getting heartily annoyed at Verhoeven. You know, if he hates America so much (and he does, he's breathless about it), why is he still making films here and for American audiences? He actually calls the viewers who like the film fascists! Wow! I am not insulted (how can you be insulted by something so ridiculous?) but I am amused. The guy has clearly lost the plot and it does not matter how many naked scenes he manages to put in his films. Even more amusing was Neumeier's clear embarrassment at several points in the commentary where he carefully but gently disagreed with Verhoeven's take on what he (Neumeier) has written. But the loud Dutch guy just did not get it. At first it was funny, but then it became irritating. Does this guy ever shut up? How many times can you tell the audience that they are seeing a toy ship against a matte painting?

August 14, 2003